Socialist Worker

Britain's history of state terror

Eamonn McCann writes on shoot to kill policies, past and present

Issue No. 1961

Many people in Northern Ireland nodded in recognition when they heard of Jean Charles de Menezes being shot repeatedly in the head as he lay face down and helpless on the floor of a tube train at Stockwell.

They will have recalled Sean Savage, an unarmed member of the IRA, shot 16 times at point blank range by plain clothes members of the SAS in Gibraltar in March 1988 after he’d put his hands up in surrender.

The SAS immediately claimed, and most of the media reported as fact, that Savage and two other IRA members gunned down on the same occasion had been about to trigger a bomb.

Although the European Court of Human Rights later found the killings to be unlawful, no action was ever taken against the killers.

Eighteen year old Peter McBride was unarmed, inoffensive and a member of no political or paramilitary organisation.

He was walking home one night in north Belfast in September 1992, when two members of the Scots Guards, Fisher and Wright, chased him along the street before taking aim and shooting him in the back.

They said he had made a “sudden movement” and might have been intent on throwing a “coffee jar bomb”.

Their commanding officer Colonel Tim Spicer told an army board later that if he’d had his way the killers would have been commended, given back their rifles and sent out to complete their patrol.

After a huge outcry in Northern Ireland, Fisher and Wright were charged and convicted of murder. Both were released on the orders of then Northern Ireland secretary, Mo Mowlam, after serving two years.

They were taken back into their regiment, with back pay restored. Fisher has since been promoted. The pair are now believed to be serving in Basra.

Their commander, Spicer, now heads the private security company Aegis, employing mainly ex-soldiers, which has just won a major contract from the US Pentagon to provide “specialist security personnel and expertise” in Iraq.

Kevin McGovern, 19, a student at an agricultural college, was on his way to a disco in Cookstown, County Tyrone, in September 1991 carrying a can of beer when an RUC man shot him in the back.

The cops claimed that when challenged by a patrol, he “took up the standard aiming stance for a pistol revolver”.

A policeman charged with murder was acquitted—the judge found that although his actions were unreasonable, his belief in that the teenager might have been about to shoot him was not! The killer was reinstated in the police.

In the course of the conflict in Northern Ireland, police and soldiers have killed 357 people. About 150 of these were members of republican paramilitary organisations, not all of whom were armed at the time. Some 189 of the victims were unarmed civilians.

The Scots Guards are the only individuals with murder convictions.

Families and friends of the dead have faced formidable difficulties in seeking the truth.

There’s the unwillingness or inability of the political and judicial establishment to accept that the state condones not just trigger happy police and soldiers and occasionally irresponsible behaviour, but deliberate murder.

They shut their minds against the possibility. Or rather, against admission of the possibility.

There’s the notion of no smoke without fire, that for all the apparent innocence of the victim, he or she must have said or done something to “send out the wrong signal” and attract the lethal attentions of the killers.

There’s the operation of deep set prejudice against the category of people from whom the victim is most likely to come.

In the North, for example, 86 percent of non-paramilitary civilian victims of state killings in the last 30 years have been Catholics.

And there’s the fact that the media and other more subtle manipulators of opinion will set out deliberately to ensure that a false account is first into the public domain and therefore likely to overshadow the truth when and if it eventually emerges.

Most important, perhaps, is the insidious idea that whatever the truth of a particular incident, to make much of it is to “play into the hands of the terrorists”.

There’s a risk of drawing down the wrath of the state onto oneself—undergoing the same demonisation and marginalisation which may have played a part in the killing in the first place.

As a result, many who will speak up after a state killing—for human rights and against state excesses—will take care to explain that they are not blaming the state generally or challenging the right of the state to use lethal force to “protect the public”.

They just want reassurance things were done properly in this instance. Or if not, that the “mistake” will be noted, “lessons learned”.

They balk at the plain obvious truth of killings such as that of Jean Charles de Menezes.

The implication of the truth is that state forces routinely kill innocent citizens and routinely get away with it and that any working class person who puts trust in the police or army is a fool.

Eamonn McCann is an Irish socialist and writer and one of the founders of the 1960s civil rights movement.


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Sat 30 Jul 2005, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1961
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